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The Death of Strangers and the Life of the Community in Eastern Christian Thought

Maria Doerfler, Duke University, Summer Fellow 2013

My research over the summer focused on the rhetorical and theological significance of the so-called pandektai in sixth-century Antioch and its surroundings. Dubbed “strangers’ graves” in Syriac, these cemeteries accommodated the bodies of those who died on foreign soil, separated from the families or communities that would have normally assumed responsibility for their inhumation and commemoration. These cemeteries are preserved for us as a textual more than as an archaeological site. While excavations in the Eastern Roman provinces have begun to shed light on puzzles in the historical record, the mass graves of anonymously buried men and women of limited means, lacking either structural or epigraphal treasure, hold limited promise for archaeological inquiry. By contrast, the bodies of strangers and the graves that housed them intrude upon a wide range of texts from the fifth and sixth centuries, including homilies, liturgical compositions, and hagiographical accounts.

While at Dumbarton Oaks, I worked on the first systematic examination of these sources. This study has proved exceedingly productive, not only for assessing the social and economic conditions of Eastern Roman cities in the later parts of Late Antiquity but also for providing glimpses at the still nascent theological imagination surrounding the afterlife and the community’s liturgical and practical role therein. Late Antique writers like Severus of Antioch frequently insisted that the individual alone bore responsibility for the soul’s fate after death. But their emphasis on the church’s ritual accompaniment of the anonymous (and accordingly religiously and morally indeterminate) dead illuminates an understanding of the afterlife that was both more communally oriented and more reflective of popular theological conceptions.